Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan answers our burning questions about his season 2 finale twists (such as that surprise post-credits sequence), while also tackling some larger questions about the season — such as the “is the show too confusing?” debate and his tale’s critical assessment of humanity (his epic and candid final answer in this conversation is a must-read). Finale spoilers below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you know who each of those balls represent in Dolores’ purse? Or is your cast on edge about which characters Dolores found worthy of survival?
JONATHAN NOLAN: We’ve had some interesting conversations. It’s a large ensemble cast and sadly we’re saying goodbye to some people at the end of this season. But as always with this show, who remains and who doesn’t is something we’re having a lot of fun with. There’s going to be a bit of a wait for a third season but we want to surprise and hopefully delight people with the way things progress.
A bit of a wait? Are you thinking end of 2019 or perhaps 2020 for season 3?
We’re still talking it through, honestly, with our friends at HBO, and with the cast and the crew. We want to take the time to make every season as exciting as possible. And we have an enormous challenge going into season 3 with the worlds that we’re building going forward. We want to make sure we have the time to do that right.
When we see Dolores walking with Charlotte out of the room at the end on the mainland, does that mean there are now two Doloreses played by different actors?
Ehhh, not really. The question of who’s who and what we’re looking at is something we’re excited to play with. We’re excited to withhold a little from the audience but … it’s complicated.
Okay that’s the only question I have for you that I thought would get an easy “yes.”
You should have known better. There are no easy yeses in this show.
Is it safe to assume — and perhaps it’s not — that Zahn McClarnon’s character, the Ghost Nation leader Akecheta, and others who went through the portal to the virtual Eden are not going to continue on?
I think that’s on the safer end of things to presume. But there’s a big story we’re telling here so … yeah.
I know you’ve drafted the broad strokes of your multi-year plan, can you say if next season largely take place outside the park?
Yes. We’re very excited about where the third season goes. It’s been a long build-up to get outside the park. And we’re incredibly excited about what that looks like and sounds like and what exactly our hosts discover out there.
I was surprised you didn’t reveal the remaining three park worlds since your characters were leaving anyway. Is that because it wasn’t necessary to the story or because you have future plans to reveal those other parks?
Well, not all of our favorite characters have managed to escape yet, so…
Ah, okay. Readers might also wonder why the neck-scanner didn’t register Dolores/Charlotte as a host. I’m assuming that was Ford’s tinkering?
Yeah, absolutely that’s in a place where the systems are all code, all the tools they have give them a sense of false confidence. Anything is possible with Ford at the helm.
Your Marvel-like post credits sequence with William and his daughter that brought us back to the horrifying James Delos fidelity apartment. My read was that Dolores printed out a version of the Man in Black and his daughter using the park’s secret guest data to leave them entombed in The Forge to do the fidelity test for all eternity and that scene takes place many years later. But that it doesn’t mean the Man in Black was a host previously or that he’s not still alive in the real world like we saw with him in the tent. Is that more or less how we should be interpreting this?
I’d agree with a lot of that. They do explicitly say they’re not in the system. And we do see the ruins of it. So that does suggest in that scene we are further in the future. We’d always said with this story we wanted to consider the beginning, middle and the end the of the emergence of a new form of life on Earth and we managed to cover a lot of those bases in this season.
Based on that final scene, should we assume there will be a time jump for season 3?
Not necessarily. We just love the ability to play in perceptual terms with the hosts being immortal. There is a subtle shift in this season, when you started seeing more and more backstory of the Man in Black, it should raise suspicions, and it has for a lot of people but, um … returning to the last question, your take it on it, which, as usual, is astute, is we’re watching a series of events play out: We see Emily’s dead body, we see the Man in Black in extremis — but not quite dead yet — but we also understand we’ve explored Delos’ greatest mistake, the one unalterable moment, the cornerstone decision he makes in his life, and we’re seeing that play out with the Man in Black. We’ve seen how it is that, using The Forge, that you’d be drawn back to these key moments and you’d run them again and again…
I’m not sure I tracked which timeline you were showing in every scene this season, which has had some viewers saying the show got too confusing. In retrospect, do you think that’s valid or are viewers not paying enough attention?
It’s all perfectly valid. If it didn’t track for some people, it didn’t track. But look, the first movie that I worked on [Memento] was told backwards, right? I’ve always had a great faith in the capacity of an audience to not only be able to track complicated non-linear storytelling but often to embrace it and enjoy it. Those are the people we’re making this show for.
That said, the structure of the first season had a non-linear structure but it’s not apparent until the last episode. The second season structure is a fairly familiar one, it’s a flashforward/flashback structure, not that different than classic film noir like DOA or Double Indemnity or any movie you point to where you have an amnesiac protagonist who can’t quite remember what happened. The first season is rooted in Dolores’ perception of reality that we only understand too late is nonlinear. In the second season, with the audience’s understanding of that, we thought we could play with our cards up, showing the non-linearity of Bernard. In fact, the second season is a little more straightforward but it is playing out in two distinct timelines — two and a half if you count the post-credits sequence, and complete with flashbacks. It’s not necessarily for everyone but all of these choices were rooted in the protagonists’ understanding of the reality around them, and centering this season on Bernard’s broken mind as he tries to navigate through the debris of memory. Subsequent seasons will be structured in … different ways.
Do you want to say anything about killing off poor Elsie?
Shannon Woodward is a phenomenal actor and lovely person and we had a fantastic experience working with her and would relish the opportunity to work with her again. This show is about mortality and immortality and there’s never any real saying goodbye. Elsie’s story through the season underlines the challenges for the hosts — even if they find allies among the humans they’re still speaking to each other across this great divide. There’s a horrifying moment between Elsie and Bernard in the finale where you realize she has respect and affection for Bernard but she’s right that he’s not fully in control. The challenge for the hosts is that when dealing with humanity — even if somebody like Elsie is sympathetic for Bernard — they’re fundamentally different. Elsie, in this case, has underestimated the cravenness of her fellow humans.
Speaking of which, this season in general — and the finale in particular — seemed really critical of humanity, saying we’re these broken selfish creatures, unable to evolve or change, who kinda deserve to get replaced by robots. You always seem like such an upbeat guy. Is your take on humanity really that dire?
Obviously, this show is a little out of step with its misanthropy. It’s a little out of step with where we’re at culturally where it’s a time of great optimism and we’re all just knocked out daily by the warm bath of humanity that we find ourselves in these days [Nolan pauses, and then reveals he was being sarcastic] No, it’s a f—ing disaster. It’s a f—ing total disaster. And every time I turn on the news I’m provided with fodder for our discontent. I think our timing might have been exactly right on.
Listen, I’m surrounded by the wonders of the creations of human beings. I have children and [co-creator Lisa Joy] and I are reminded daily of how much beauty there is in humanity. But yeah, you turn on the f—ing news and it’s a s—show. And I’ve been reading a lot of history this season, a little bit connected to the show, but also just following the train of things I’m interested in, and it’s depressing to realize how familiar some of these problems are, right? It’s like we just can’t figure these f—ing things out. We come back to them again and again. It’s as if there’s a flaw — and this is very much the premise in our second season — there’s a flaw in our code and it follows us around. Wherever we go, there we are. And we just can’t get out of our own f—ing way. All the beauty and incredible things we brought, and we just consistently find a way to f— it up.
Much of [dramatic storytelling across the ages] has concerned itself with “how will we overcome?” and personal growth and change. At a certain point you gotta f—ing call it. We’re not going to fix this s—, we’re not going to figure it out. But there’s an opportunity for the things that replace us to do so. And that’s the dream of every parent, right? That their child doesn’t face the same things they do, that they make better choices? But there does seem to be a pattern of behavior that follows us, that history echoes from the past, the same mistakes, the same foibles. So you say: At what point does this fix itself? Or are we just stuck this way?
For more Westworld finale coverage, check out our deep-dive recap for “The Passenger.”
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